February 25, 2020
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What Jim Lehrer’s rules can teach us all

Chip Somodevilla | AP
Chip Somodevilla | AP
This Sept. 26, 2008, file photo shows debate moderator Jim Lehrer during the first U.S. Presidential Debate between presidential nominees Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi. PBS announced that PBS NewsHour's Jim Lehrer died Thursday at home. He was 85.

Jim Lehrer, the longtime anchor of PBS NewsHour, died last week at 85. Perhaps best known for interviewing world leaders and moderating presidential debates, Lehrer’s life’s work reporting the news was defined by a commitment to fairness.

Lehrer quite literally has left a list of important lessons for the journalists of today and tomorrow. Though he may have developed his nine rules for good journalism working in a very different media and information landscape than we find ourselves in now, these rules remain incredibly relevant for journalists and, more broadly, for just about anyone seeking to better understand the world.

Lehrer’s first rule, “Do nothing I cannot defend,” is as valuable as it is self-evident. It’s basically another way of saying, “Do what you think is right,” which of course is subjective, but nevertheless is a constant reminder that decisions — in the news business or in life — should be guided by conscience.

Under his rules, Lehrer resolved to “cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.” That’s essentially a journalistic version of the golden rule, to treat the people the way we want to be treated. This rule, and Lehrer’s rules to assume viewers and story subjects are “as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am” underscore the importance of recognizing others’ humanity and maintaining empathy, even when asking tough questions or holding people accountable.

Lehrer’s rules also instructed to “assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.” That’s good advice — there’s usually more than two sides to any story — and while it’s incumbent on members of the media to provide the fullest picture possible, it’s also important for everyone not to fall into a false trap of thinking that all sides carry equal weight or legitimacy all the time.

In a rule that feels particularly relevant to this editorial board, Lehrer encouraged journalists to “carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything.” We have made an effort here at the BDN to more expressly label opinion content online and explain where that opinion comes from.

Editorials like this one, for example, are written by the BDN editorial board. We edit opinion columns, contributed OpEds and letters to the editor. We are not the same editors who edit the news stories produced by BDN reporters. Those stories often inform the editorials we write, but we don’t shape the reporters’ coverage — that responsibility belongs to the news editors. Our opinions are not their opinions. That’s why Lehrer was right; it’s very important to separate opinion and news content, and to try to help readers be aware and understand the difference.

Another of Lehrer’s rules, a reminder that “I am not in the entertainment business” feels particularly relevant at a moment when the line between entertainment, news and politics seems increasingly muddled. That’s not to say the news can’t be entertaining. But the primary goal of those delivering it should be to inform.

The lessons Lehrer leaves behind are not limited to his list of rules. Just this fall, for example, he gave remarks at the University of Missouri that spoke to a universal truth: we all make mistakes, and we need to own up to them.

“Anybody who practices journalism has got to come to grips with the fact that you’re not going to get it right every time,” Lehrer said during remarks at the university in October, when he was inducted in the school’s hall of fame. “But you gotta understand when you make a mistake, and you gotta acknowledge it.”

Lehrer’s news partner, Robert MacNeil, provided insight into some of the lessons he learned from the man he worked with for decades, including his ability to listen, the value of a direct style of interviewing, and the importance of “not being afraid to say ‘you don’t understand’ or ‘you don’t know.’”

That last one might be the best takeaway of all: There’s always something else to learn.

 


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